Barbara Pinsak, left, interim superintendent of schools, speaks during Thursday night’s Civil Rights Commission meeting. At right is Kendra Johnson, the district’s assistant superintendent for equity. ERIN ROLL/STAFF

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

The Montclair school district said during a recent Board of Education meeting that it wouldn’t be able to hire a student advocate for the 2017-2018 school year.

But after last Thursday night’s Civil Rights Commission meeting, during which several parents spoke out on the need for a student advocate, the district may be giving the subject another look.

The Oct. 19 meeting was focused on school issues, as a number of district administrators — including Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak and Dr. Kendra Johnson, the district’s assistant superintendent for equity — had been invited to speak to the commission.

Parents had also raised concerns about the need for a student advocate during that week’s BOE meeting.

Johnson confirmed after Thursday’s meeting that the district’s administration would meet as a team, discuss the fiscal situation and then bring the subject back before the board for further discussion.

A student advocate is a staff member who acts as a liaison between students and their families and the school; over the past several months, several parents in the district have inquired when the district intended to fill that position.

At Monday night’s BOE meeting, the board indicated that it would not be filling the student advocate position.

At the civil rights commission meeting, Pinsak explained that the decision had been made for two reasons. The first was that one advocate would likely not be able to serve the needs of all 1,100 students in the district. Secondly, Pinsak said that the district’s budget would not permit it.

There is also the question of who a student advocate would be accountable to, should one be hired. Pinsak said that there had been discussions of having the student advocate be a member of one of the district’s associations for staff and administrators, but she said that the idea did not sit well with members of the community.

“If you have only one advocate, that beats none. Because you don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors,” said John Washington. It was also important to have a student advocate who was not directly accountable to the board of education. “You only see what your fellow employees show you,” he said.

“Mr. Washington, I don’t think anyone disagrees with the concept of a student advocate,” said Joe Kavesh, who is a member of the BOE as well as the chair of the civil rights commission. “Montclair schools, and Montclair township, cannot print money,” he said.
Other audience members voiced their concerns about the need for a student advocate.

“I’m tired of the needs of black children getting kicked down the road,” said audience member Justin Johnson.

Former Fire Chief Kevin Allen, a commission member, noted that while white parents in the district may feel comfortable with going to the school and voicing concerns to a teacher or a principal, the same may not be true for many black parents.

Commission member James Harris, who also tracks education issues for the Montclair NAACP, noted that the student advocate position had been included in the budget. He also said that there was a pervasive impression that racial discrimination exists in Montclair. And part of that, he said, was due to an information gap between the school administration and the public.

In a subsequent email, Pinsak confirmed that the student advocate position had been included in the district’s budget, along with the position of food service director. “The board wanted clarification (enhanced position description) of the student advocate position so that they would have a deeper understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the individual selected,” she said. “I eventually recommended that we not fill the student advocate position because of our need to hire additional teaching staff.”

Pinsak noted that most positions in the budget are not legal obligations, and may be reviewed or changed based on district needs.

In addition to the student advocate position, the commission discussed hiring practices related to teaching staff, the demographics of students participating in the schools’ small learning communities, and the status of students who were potentially affected by the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) act.